Ministers accused of double standards over arms exports

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British arms exports fuel international conflicts and undermine efforts to improve the human rights records of some of the world's most-criticised regimes, campaigners say.

The Foreign office released two reports this week, one on British arms exports and the other its annual assessment of human rights violations. And the arms control campaigners say they showed that British weaponry and military equipment was sent to countries criticised by the Foreign Office for their human rights records.

The campaigners criticised the Government for arming countries in some of the world's most volatile regions. Ministers say they are "proud of our record" on licensing arms exports and insist human rights are at the forefront of licensing decisions.

But the campaigners criticised the decision to grant arms export licences for exports to countries such as China and Nepal. They said that 13 countries receiving arms exports from Britain had been criticised in the Foreign Office's report on human rights. The Foreign Office said Britain "continues to have serious concerns about basic human rights in China" yet Britain authorised exports of goods worth £100m to the country during 2004, amid debate in Europe about whether to lift the arms embargo on China.

Officials pointed to "serious abuses" of human rights in Nepal committed both by security forces and the Maoist insurgents, warning of "grave concern" that the situation would deteriorate further. Yet campaigners said that arms exports worth £1.5m were authorised, including licences for assault-rifle parts between January and March this year.

Anna MacDonald, director of Campaigns for the aid agency Oxfam, said: "It appears the Government is guilty of deadly double standards. It criticised numerous countries for their worsening human rights records in 2004. But only the day before, the Government's annual report on arms exports showed that weapons sales to several of these countries rose last year. It is time for the Government to come clean. It needs to tell us who arms have been sold to and what they will be used for."

Paul Eavis, the director of the pressure group Saferworld, said yesterday: "It is simply not joined-up government that we can be authorising some of these exports to the very countries whose human rights performance we are so strongly criticising. The Government must take greater responsibility for where weapons end up after they leave these shores."

A spokesman for the Campaign Against the Arms Trade added: "The Governments arms exports figures show many of the countries of concern highlighted in the human rights report benefited from substantial arms exports. If the Government is to be serious about putting human rights before profits it must stop selling arms to the world's most repressive regimes." The group also criticised the Government for permitting arms exports to countries such as India and Pakistan in known international hotspots.

The spokesman added: "Even this limited record shows that Britain is openly arming human rights abusers, and fuelling tension in some of the world's most unstable conflict zones. Again the Government seems oblivious to the potential misuses of arms exports on which it doesn't keep track, and the documented abuses of exports on which it does."

But in its annual Human Rights Report, the Foreign Office insisted: "human rights concerns are at the forefront of our assessment of all export licence applications. The UK will not issue an export licence if there is a clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression. We exercise special caution and vigilance in issuing licences to countries where there are serious violations of human rights."

The report said it was legitimate for governments to use force, as long as it was exercised in accordance with international standards. It added: "In assessing the risk of an export being used for internal repression, we examine the human rights record of the ultimate end-user of the goods and the exact nature of the equipment to be exported."

Where the weaponry went

Countries highlighted by arms control campaigners

* CHINA 180 export licences issued, worth £100m.

The Foreign Office Human Rights Report warned that Britain "continues to have serious concerns about basic human rights"

* INDONESIA 106 export licenses issued, worth £12m. Items included components for combat aircraft and bomb disposal equipment.

The Foreign Office Human Rights Report says the human rights situation in Indonesia is "better than it has been for some years" but says Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have warned of abuses by the military and the Free Aceh Movement

* NEPAL Four export licences issued, worth £1.5m, including components for assault rifles.

The Foreign Office Human Rights Report says the human rights situation has been "steadily deteriorating" in Nepal for years with "serious abuses" by Maoist insurgents and government forces

* ISRAEL 141 licences issued, worth £12m, including military aero engines and armoured vehicles.

The Foreign Office Human Rights Report expresses "grave concern" at Israel's failure to respect the human rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories, although it says there is cause for "cautious optimism" over the Israeli government's plan to withdraw from Gaza

* SAUDI ARABIA 112 licences issued, worth £19.5m, including machine guns, assault rifles, ammunition, body armour and armoured vehicles.

The Foreign Office Human Rights Report says there has been a "small but significant improvement" in human rights in Saudia Arabia, but warns that the government "has continued to violate human rights"